ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Loder estimates nearly 12 percent of business at his Crabby Bill's restaurants is grouper, Florida's most economically important seafood product.
But if he's charging $19.99 for a grouper dinner while a competitor is charging $6.99 for what in fact may be fake grouper, "that makes me look like the bad guy in the marketplace," he says.
So imagine if there was a hand-held device — think a fish Breathalyzer — that would help Loder, seafood wholesalers and food inspectors know for sure that the grouper is grouper and the Asian catfish is not.
It was the prevalence of imposter species and the unveiling of that handy device that brought Loder and nearly 20 other fish industry professionals and restaurateurs to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg on Wednesday for a hands-on grouper authentication workshop co-sponsored by the College of Marine Science and Florida Sea Grant. USF professors John Paul and David Fries led the group through an hourlong experiment of test tubes, pipettes and a tiny machine called a QPyre Handheld Sensor in order to do this: verify DNA markers in fish species to quickly determine what was grouper, and what was not.
This represents real progress from 2006, when a Times' special report about grouper revealed the prevalence of imposter species in the Tampa Bay marketplace. Back then, each sample had to be sent away for testing, requiring weeks of time and thousands of dollars.
This new grouper testing apparatus, about twice the size of an iPhone, is still a ways from being cheap or easy to use. It costs $2,500 and requires a multistep process: Extracting a sample from the fish, soaking it in chemicals, purifying the genetic material and then putting the sample into the handheld machine for fluorescence detection (grouper species exhibit a higher fluorescence). Computer software analyzes the data and accurately determines whether it's grouper or not.
A less expensive "blister pack" field version is in the works, using cellphone software to analyze the data. At the workshop, the group discussed the importance of this kind of testing.
Bob Jones, executive director of Southeastern Fisheries, said he thinks technology of this sort may jump-start progress toward transparency in the industry.
"We've been working on detecting imposter fish for a decade. The only progress we've made is with (consumers). As far as (labeling) the right fish, we go somewhere between 50 and 70 percent."
There are 56 kinds of fish the FDA allows to be called grouper. The scientists behind the QPyre have gotten their hands on 35 of these with reliable results. Many of the remaining fish are exotics and unlikely to be in this marketplace. The apparatus works on raw, cooked or frozen samples, and requires just a tiny punch sample from a fillet (meaning minimal loss of fish).
USF's Fries, who developed the technology, says, "This is kind of a front-line apparatus to screen a large number of samples rapidly." The results reveal whether the sample is grouper or not, and exactly which species of grouper it is (a boon to those who prefer Florida's gulf species).
While further testing is needed to identify an imposter species, the technology could be re-engineered to work for other highly prized, often-faked fish species.
"The sky's the limit for other species if you have the time to develop the assays and tests," says Paul of USF.
In a market routinely glutted with cheap import fakes, the question then becomes where in the supply chain does it make sense to institute tests of this kind: At the state regulatory level? At the docks or wholesale fish markets? Or in the restaurants themselves? These are details yet to be hammered out.
Loder can envision hiring an independent contractor to use this technology on grouper coming into Crabby Bill's restaurants, representing a value-added service to customers.
"If you're paying $25 for grouper, you're entitled to grouper. This changes the dynamic. The restaurant and seafood industries have had a big problem. Fish substitution isn't something that can be done under the cover of darkness anymore."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.